“Meaningless pulp.” “Puerile escapism.” “Utter trash.” These are not the labels one would ordinarily associate with an award-winning writer’s work. However, the sound of academia’s jaw hitting the floor continues to resonate years after Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. For many, the issuing of the medal to the Maine horror writer was cause for much discussion–not upon the author’s oeuvre–but of the Foundation’s audacity to place the Master of a Macabre alongside the likes of Toni Morrison, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Philip Roth.
It is not as if those who inhabit the offices and classrooms lining the halls of higher learning are earnestly befuddled as to why and how Stephen King has garnered and retains the largest readership in the world. They are well aware that people enjoy his work. Their confusion begins where the line between good and bad writing is drawn. For academia, King irrefutably falls into the latter category, as epitomized by the reigning sentinel of aesthetic literary evaluation, Harold Bloom. The Yale professor went on record stating that, “The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. [A line which can be interpreted as a not-so-subtle promotion of the speaker’s The Western Canon.] I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”[i] As such, the Academy’s consternation is that, though given a choice, people willfully elect to read King in place of other–and, in its mind, more substantive–scribes. In short, the Academy’s problem is that King hasn’t penned great literature and therefore isn’t deserving of an accolade which is shared by many whom it has deemed worthy of such an honor.
So, and humoring academia’s gripe, why did the National Book Foundation see fit to give King the coveted prize? Perhaps the shorter route to an answer would be to ask why it doesn’t consider King a writer of merit, no less greatness.
Intelligentsia tells us that great literature’s prowess lies in its ability to speak to its reader. Moreover, for such work to prove itself, it must stand the test of time. In order to accomplish this feat, so we are told by the academically-approved Greek philosopher Aristotle, a work must encompass a Universal, something which is applicable to humanity under any and all conditions and is exempt from cultural flavor, transitory opinions, and other (however ironic and paradoxical) fleeting designators relating to taste. In short, a piece of art need not only pertain to its current audience, it must have something by which the passing generations will find relevant and insightful. Of course, the eternal themes of love, death, ethics, etc. all qualify under this heading. Does King’s work house any of these?
Upon announcing who would be receiving the award in 2003, the Foundation proclaimed, “Stephen King’s writing is securely rooted in the great American tradition that glorifies spirit-of-place and the abiding power of narrative. He crafts stylish, mind-bending page-turners that contain profound moral truths–some beautiful, some harrowing–about our inner lives. This award commemorates Mr. King’s well-earned place of distinction in the wide world of readers and book lovers of all ages.”
“Profound moral truths.” In addition, King has focused upon such themes as the trials of youth (Carrie, It, Rage, “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “The Body,” “Cain Rose Up”), mortality (Pet Sematary, “The Woman in the Room,” “1408,” “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”), greed and/or materialism (Needful Things, “The Fifth Quarter,” “Weeds,” “Rainy Season,” “Everything’s Eventual,” “Luckey Quarter”), theology (Carrie, Insomnia, The Stand, “The Mist,” “Children of the Corn,” “The Man in the Black Suit,” “Umney’s Last Case”), and the effects of technology upon society (Christine, The Cell, “The Mangler,” “Trucks”). King is also responsible for having created many poignant satires (The Running Man, The Regulators, The Long Walk, “Never Look Behind You,” “Quitters, Inc.,” “The End of the Whole Mess,” “The Library Policeman,” “The Ten O’Clock People”), while being one of the more prominent pens in the last century upon the topic of the psychology and philosophy of the creative instinct (Misery, The Dark Half, Lisey’s Story, On Writing, “Umney’s Last Case”). Granted, the quibble can be had, as it quite often is even with those included in the academic curriculum, of just how effective King is at presenting such ideas. Nevertheless, given that he deals with acknowledged universal concepts, the author cannot be excluded on these grounds alone.
Many defenders of King highlight the fact that professors are highly exclusionary in respect to who they allow in their hallowed circle. On this note, several critical commentators (Bloom included) openly declare that no author who possesses a mainstream audience could ever be responsible for a laudable story. Of course, the implication is that no substantial work of art could be understood or, more importantly, appreciated by the masses. Bear in mind that Nobel- and Pulitzer-winners appear on Oprah; nary one of either award has followed an Oprah appearance. Academia’s elitism is nothing new in this respect as it continues to blush in the presence of historical fact: As the surnames Defoe, Dickens, Rousseau, Goethe, Twain, Lewis (take your pick), Steinbeck, Hemingway, and London (the first writer to make a million dollars) line proscenium arches above countless university libraries, these critically-heralded men nevertheless produced one page-turning bestseller after another during their time.
Thus, issuing benefit of the doubt that academia’s peeve is not rooted in mere childish jealousy over King being read by (thus availing himself to effecting) a greater number of people than any of their own could ever hope (because the greatest tale ever told is meaningless if no one reads it) since, if for no other reason, one of the recognized signs of a great writer is the ability to appeal, not to a specific audience, i.e. academia, but a wide array of readers (again, one of the noted motives for King being given the award was his attracting “book lovers of all ages”), what other reason could academia have for wholeheartedly rejecting King? Interestingly, the answer lies within the realm of cinema.
Numerous adaptations have been made of King’s work. Of these films, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me and Misery, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are the only ones which received consistent critical acclaim. Ignoring the latter for the time being, all but Misery are dramatic (as opposed to horror) affairs. Yet the feature did not garner accolades due to its story, rather its power was stated as exclusively residing in Kathy Bates’s Oscar-winning performance.
Granted, using film as a litmus by which to diagnose the situation involves a change of medium, but it nevertheless serves as an indicator–is symptomatic as it were–of the problem at hand. Case in point and returning to our exception, the 1980 screen portrayal of The Shining was directed by one of academia’s own. When this is cast alongside the note that, though one of the most prolific genres in cinema, horror is poorly represented and barely acknowledged in the American Film Institute’s most recent edition of its “100 Years, 100 Films” (and, of those select few productions, film degree prerequisite Alfred Hitchcock is responsible for one–Psycho–while the other is left standing by itself, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, albeit under the heading of “psychological thriller” in lieu of its story involving two serial killers, a staple theme within the horror genre), the pattern becomes clear: Academia doesn’t like horror.
(It doesn’t help that, though applauded for his two previous efforts despite their being King adaptations, Frank Darabout’s The Mist was subsequently ignored by mainstream critics. Why, given its being every bit as potent, if not moreso, than any Darabout effort–or King adaptation for that matter–to grace the Silver Screen, as reflected in genre critics consistently placing it upon their Best of the Year catalogues? It was the director’s first rendition of a King horror tale.).
Academia doesn’t just not like horror, it unrepentantly refuses to acknowledge it, as seen in the genre being almost wholeheartedly excluded from consideration. As I’ve observed in a critique of Bloom’s cinematic doppelgänger, Roger Ebert, the Chicago critic dismisses horror on the arbitrary grounds of personal taste as he simultaneously tosses objectivity out of the window (otherwise known as “selective open-mindedness”) for, obviously, every genre has the potential to express something of value.[ii] Hence, what other reason do we have for critical commentators not giving an entire category of creation equal opportunity? Granted, one must sift through a lot of roughage in order to find the diamonds in horror, but as I’ve noted before, it is no different with any other genre: For every Some Like It Hot, we have a handful of Date Movies; for every Star Wars, we have a hundred Starship Troopers; for every Casablanca, we have a gaggle of Giglis; for every Stagecoach, we have a gross of Wild, Wild Wests.[iii] What results is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Academes don’t want to find anything in horror and thus don’t go looking. When they return home empty-handed, they then declare there is nothing to be found, thereby justifying their refusal to go in search the following day.
To be sure, academia has their token horror scribe in Edgar Allan Poe, but–as noted–he is just that, token. This is done, at least in part, so that academia can freely testify that they aren’t prejudiced. Still not convinced? The Library of America recently released a compendium of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, simply titled Tales. The critical reception of the volume by the Rhode Island horror writer, a person whom the academically-revered critic Edmund Wilson once called a “hack” with “bad taste and bad art,” speaks volumes in that people were surprised that the omnibus was receiving good reviews: “What is absolutely arresting about the volume is how much attention it has gathered. I have seen positive reviews of it in such pop-culture mainstays as Salon.com, the Weekly Standard, the Boston Globe, and even the Wall Street Journal. Where have these glowing reviews been hiding?”[iv] But, to be fair, we cannot fault Literati for not acknowledging that Lovecraft’s work is masterfully clear-sighted, in many cases flawlessly executed (the WSJ states his prose possesses a “florid eloquence”[v]), and that it (predates and) encompasses a mythology every bit as rich and complex as William Faulkner’s because the Academy probably hasn’t read any of it.
Of course, it is easy to understand perhaps why Lovecraft was instantaneously accepted after-the-fact whereas, though given an analogous honor, King was not: Lovecraft was not a mainstream seller, so much so that if it weren’t for the efforts of a small but devout fan base, he would have surely plummeted into oblivion. As such, there was no need to supercede any significant amount of lay appreciation prior to his admittance into the annals of literature (which would explain why Bloom is tolerant of Lovecraft but not King).[vi]
During his acceptance speech, King addressed the irony of academia staying willfully ignorant of popular affairs while campaigning under the heading of objective inquiry, “What do you [the Academy] think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?” He goes on to add, “There’s a writer here tonight, my old friend and some time collaborator, Peter Straub. He’s just published what may be the best book of his career. Lost Boy Lost Girl surely deserves your consideration for the NBA [National Book Award] short list next year, if not the award itself. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it?”[vii] In so doing, King highlights the primary reason people were aghast at his being granted a lifetime achievement award by a critically-esteemed panel: It is not that he is a bad writer or that he is vastly popular, but because he is a horror writer. In the end, and undoubtedly to academia’s speechless dismay and frothing chagrin, an unworthy writer somehow stumbled upon an omission by those whose charge it is to ensure no critical rock goes unturned. We’ll ignore that such an astute observation might require a very lucid mind to have made it.
- Interview with Director David DeFalco (Chaos) - January 22, 2015
- Interview with Actor Nathan Baesel (Behind the Mask: ROLV) - January 22, 2015
- An Interview with Bentley Little - January 22, 2015
- So You Want to Be a Movie Critic, Heh? - January 22, 2015
- Fearful Meditations: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies in Horror Cinema - January 22, 2015
- I Can’t Discuss Glen Morgan’s New Film, [Censored] [Censored], Because Liberty Counsel Says It’s Rude: Race, Religious Tolerance, Ethics, and Aesthetics and the 21st Century Holiday Horror Film - January 22, 2015
- Roger Ebert’s Bloody Ax: An Examination of the Film Critic’s Elitist Dismissal of the Horror Film by Michael “Egregious” Gurnow - January 22, 2015
- Defending the King: An Examination of Academia’s Reaction to Stephen King Being Awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters - January 22, 2015
- Zarathustra . . . Cthulhu . Meursault: Existential Futility in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” - January 22, 2015
- The Evil - January 18, 2015